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Don Letts - Culture Clash, Chapter 19

This was 
Big Audio Dynamite

In September 1983 Mick Jones was fired from The Clash. A year later I’m standing in a nightclub with him and my good friend and bass player Leo ‘E.Z Kill’ Williams. Mick looked to his left and there was Leo, to his right was me, and he said he thought we looked like a band. There and then Mick asked me to join what would become Big Audio Dynamite. When I told him I couldn’t play anything, he simply replied, “Paul couldn’t play bass when he joined The Clash.” We auditioned for a drummer in the NME and found Greg Roberts. Because I couldn’t play anything I threw myself into writing lyrics, which I approached in the same way as writing a script for a video. Prompted by Mick I also started sourcing samples and dialogue which I ‘stole’ from a whole host of classic movies. Big Audio Dynamite had a wide-screen approach, our sound was a blend of New York beats, Jamaican bass-lines and English rock’n’roll guitar. I took care of the samples and dialogue, which became an integral part of the B.A.D sound.  Dan Donovan who joined later brought in more ideas when he became our keyboard player. He also put coloured stickers on my keyboard to show me what to do when we played live. Now that’s punk rock! Our first single “The Bottom Line” was released in 1985. It was remixed by Rick Rubin for release on his Def Jam label - quite a coup back in the day. Soon after we finished recording our first album Joe Strummer turned up at Mick’s flat wanting to get The Clash back together but B.A.D were on a roll.

This Is B A D

“This is Big Audio Dynamite” was released in late 1985. Some say that floating within its grooves is the album The Clash should have followed ‘Combat Rock’ with. We had a hit single with “E=MC2” (the first lyrics I actually wrote with Mick) and ended up playing on Top of the Pops, which was a first for Mick Jones and definitely a first for your truly. For the lead track “Medicine Show” a humorous statement of intent, I sampled dialogue from A Fistful of Dollars, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, A Fistful of Dynamite, and of course The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The video featured cameo appearances from Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon and John Lydon. B.A.D was a huge success live and the gigs came thick and fast. We played three sell-out nights at the Brixton Academy in London, eleven nights at the Irving Plaza in New York and seven nights at the Roxy in LA. I remember when we came off stage after one of the Plaza night gigs; I looked around our dressing room to see David Bowie, Peter Frampton, Dave Stewart, Jimmy Cliff, Mick Jagger and the Beastie Boys all in attendance. 

This Is B A D 2

A year later we’re in New York City recording our second album “No.10 Upping Street” when I bump into Joe Strummer in Times Square, so I invited him down to the studio to say hello. He ended up co-producing the album!  Strummer had this amazingly energy, so even if he didn’t want to take over a project, he just couldn’t help it. It was great to see Mick and Joe creatively fall in love again. Recording in New York took around three months and it wasn’t cheap. But money wasn’t the thing, well not at that point. We didn’t slog our guts out doing fifty gigs across America; we did residencies and spent the rest of the time hanging out in whichever city we were in. We used an old Clash trick; we announced a gig in a smallish venue and the demand became so great that we’d end up playing many nights in the same place. During the summer of 1987 we supported U2 on the second leg of their European tour. Now we’re playing in front of 100,000 people which didn’t faze Mick but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t rock my world especially since I still had coloured stickers on my keyboard. We struggled financially after “No.10 Upping Street” as we had spent the advance on recording the damn thing in Manhattan.  So Mick set up a studio in his basement and we began working on what would become ‘Tighten Up Volume ’88’. The Trojan Records ‘Tighten Up’ series had left a big impression on us all, so twenty years later Big Audio Dynamite named their album in honour of those reggae compilations. If there is an overall theme to “Tighten Up Volume ’88” it’s race.

This Is B A D 3

Unfortunately Mick became seriously ill with pneumonia during the tour for the album and nearly died. Thankfully he recovered but it took a long time and while B.A.D were inactive I carried on with my film work. Mick returned fired up and ready go and in 1989 he put the final touches to our fourth and final album with the original line-up: “Megatop Phoenix”. Megatop was far more psychedelic than the previous albums, it sounds like a trip. The second ‘Summer of Love’ had a huge influence on the record. But soon after its release the band started to implode. All the usual clichés and dramas, the creative and financial arguments that most bands go through, well, the bands that I like anyway. In the end I quit Big Audio Dynamite and started my own band, Screaming Target (named after the Big Youth album) with Greg and Leo. I just wanted to know what I could do on my own.  The record had more of a reggae and world sound than B.A.D and on reflection I guess it was more of an ego exercise than anything else. And even though we did get some blinding reviews it lacked the magic of Mick Jones and after a while I got fed up with being in a band altogether.  So, as I had continued making promos for other bands all the way through my time with B.A.D, after Screaming Target I took the decision to put all my time and energy into filmmaking.

Click HERE for all posts by Don Letts.

As part of our 60 Year Anniversary Celebrations, Don Letts has created six short films exploring British music and street style. The Don Letts Subculture Films are now avilable to watch on Fred Perry Subculture HERE.